It’s finally here: Happy Matt McLain Day!
Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Charlie Goldsmith broke the news that the Reds are calling up Matt McLain from Triple-A Louisville to join the club in Colorado. McLain has been playing shortstop and second base for the Bats. The 23-year-old infielder is hitting .349/.474/.710 with 12 home runs and 10 stolen bases over 173 plate appearances. McLain’s wRC+ in Triple-A is a breathtaking 191, leading the International League. He hit for the cycle — and needed only six innings to do it — on May 4.
We wrote about McLain and his paths to the majors in late-February. The Reds selected McLain in the first round of the 2021 draft with the #17 pick overall. He signed for a $4.625 million bonus, well over slot value. As Goldsmith reports, McLain will be one of the youngest shortstops in MLB at 23 years old. He’s moved quickly through their organization, playing in just 172 minor-league games.
The Reds were aggressive with McLain from the start. Reds farm director Shawn Pender said they “pushed him as hard as we ever pushed anyone.” McLain played only two games at the rookie level before jumping him to the High-A Dayton Dragons for 29 games to finish the 2021 season. He hit .273/.387/.424 for the Dragons, with three homers in 119 plate appearances.
McLain played the entire 2022 season for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. In 103 games and 452 plate appearances, he hit .232/.363/.453. Notably, he learned how to tap into more power despite his 5-foot-8 frame, smacking 17 home runs. He maintained a strong walk rate (15.5%). But with the added power came more strikeouts. McLain’s K% jumped from 20% to 28%. He hit in the number two or three spot in the lineup until his final 20 games, when he batted cleanup or number five.
This year, McLain moved up to Triple-A Louisville and has taken another huge leap forward. His strikeout rate has dropped back to 2021 levels (19.6%) and his swinging-strike rate has fallen from 11.1% to 9.9%. He’s done this while maintaining an excellent walk rate (16.1%) and thunderous power. McLain’s ridiculous .368 ISO is third among all Triple-A hitters, as he has 12 doubles and a triple in addition to his dozen dingers. He has mostly hit third or fourth in the lineup for Louisville.
Where will McLain play for the Reds?
Per Goldsmith’s report, McLain will be an everyday player for the Reds. Where will he play? McLain has split his time between second base (13 games) and shortstop (23 games) for the Bats this season. Even after De La Cruz’s return from a hamstring injury in late April, McLain has continued to see plenty of time at shortstop. Since De La Cruz was activated on April 20, McLain has received 12 starts at second base and 10 at shortstop.
One option is moving Jonathan India off of second base, where he has been shaky. But the team would risk upsetting India in the process, and there’s no clear spot to move him. He played third base in college and the minor leagues, but his arm strength is a question mark. Would the club move him to left field or install him as the permanent designated hitter? Probably not at this point.
The clear opening for McLain is at shortstop. Although Jose Barrero has taken steps forward this season, he’s still been a below-average player offensively (63 wRC+) and defensively (-3 DRS and OAA). In other words, he hasn’t done enough to hold off the red-hot McLain from taking the job. Kevin Newman has been even worse at the plate (55 wRC+) and in the field (-4 DRS, -3 OAA). Installing McLain as the everyday shortstop is easy for now, and he can fill in at second base on days when India rests or plays DH. The everyday infield alignment could look something like this, at least in the short-term:
1B: Spencer Steer
2B: Jonathan India
SS: Matt McLain
3B: Nick Senzel
Things will get more complicated when De La Cruz and Christian Encarnacion-Strand arrive in the majors, which could be soon if they continue to tear up Triple-A pitching.
What corresponding roster move will be made?
The Reds will have to make room on both the active and 40-man rosters for McLain.
To clear space on the active roster, the Reds could place T.J. Friedl on the injured list retroactive to Friday. He hasn’t played since injuring his oblique on Thursday, and David Bell apparently doesn’t expect him back before the end of the upcoming series against the Rockies. In that case, Stuart Fairchild should continue to get starts in center field. Barrero and Senzel could also see time there.
If the Reds keep playing with a short bench and don’t place Friedl on the IL, the front office will have to make tougher decisions. Specifically, the roster spots of Barrero or Newman would be in danger. Both have minor-league options remaining (three for Newman, one for Barrero). While Newman is who he is (a below-average, 29-year-old shortstop) and could easily be shipped out, getting Barrero regular at-bats is still an important consideration. Newman was already bizarrely playing over Barrero anyway. So, it’s tough to see any path to regular playing time for Barrero unless he plays center field regularly. The other option is sending the 25-year-old to Triple-A.
To open up a spot on the 40-man roster, the Reds will either have to designate a player for assignment or transfer someone to the 60-day injured list. Joey Votto could move to the 60-day IL to open up a spot, which wouldn’t delay his return at all. Votto would still be able to return on May 26, and it seems highly unlikely that he’ll be ready by then, as there’s no word on when he’ll resume a rehab assignment. Transferring Votto to the IL would also prevent the club from designating a reliever for assignment, something the front office may want to avoid with the bullpen shorthanded and overworked. That said, Silvino Bracho and Alan Busenitz would be fairly easy DFA choices after they were called up in an emergency capacity on Sunday.
At long last, there’s no more wondering what Matt McLain has to do to earn an MLB call-up. McLain’s promotion signals the coming wave of exciting young prospects getting ready to break through to the big leagues. De La Cruz may not be far behind, especially given the strides he’s showing with his plate discipline by taking more walks and striking out less. Once Encarnacion-Strand does the same (he’s walked only twice in 89 plate appearances), he’ll likely find his way to the majors, too.
In the immediate future, McLain should give the Reds much-needed thump in their lineup. Only three teams have hit fewer home runs than the Reds. Their overall offensive production, as measured by wRC+, is also fourth-worst. Cincinnati shortstops have a collective 54 wRC+ this season, which is not the worst number in baseball only because the A’s exist (27). While McLain probably won’t post a 191 wRC+ in the majors (although we wouldn’t complain if he did!), even league-average production would be an improvement.
Welcome to the big leagues, Matt!
Featured photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann